There was a time not that long ago when it was a drawback for a basketball player to not have a definable position. The game never exactly demanded cookie-cutter sameness, but centers and big forwards patrolled the basket area and wings and guards dominated the perimeter.
It all made a lot of sense, right up until the time when the three-point shot went from being an interesting addition to college and professional offenses to the focal point instead.
“When you get a layup in half-court offense now, it’s because you can’t get the three,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said recently.
Locally, we got a good look at where the game has gone, and where it is still going, from both Villanova and the 76ers in the season just passed. The Wildcats won the national championship with a roster that could not only make three-point shots, but also step out and defend them as well, including “positionless” big man Omari Spellman.
The Sixers, who are committed to a 6-foot-10 point guard in Ben Simmons, didn’t really take off this season until they added Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli to further stretch opposing defenses and add to three-point shooting threats that include JJ Redick, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington.
“We’ve always been headed there,” coach Brett Brown said. “It gets glorified more lately because of the volume of threes that are being taken, and because some of the teams that have been winning are built like that. But even when I was coaching overseas, you always wanted to have five men who could shoot threes, and the four-man [big forward] was always the most important position on the floor. You better have a stretch four or you’re not going to play that deep.”
The difference between Villanova’s success and the playoff exit suffered by the Sixers is apples and oranges in some ways, but if you want to take a stab at a simple answer, Villanova wasn’t just able to score at every position, but was also able to defend at every position.
“That’s where the equation becomes full,” Brown said. “We know a big can shoot a three, but then you go to the other side. When you have a team that can also switch out on defense, I’m not saying you’ve got it all, but you’re really close.”
So, how do the Sixers get closer in this offseason, understanding that Covington, Saric, Ilyasova, Belinelli and Redick were a lot better on one end of the court than the other? In a game that is increasingly built around offensive screens and picks designed to create mismatches, the key is having guys who can handle any assignment.
“In the future, I really think it will be that everyone can shoot it, everyone can dribble it, everyone can pass it, and everyone can guard it,” Wright said. “The increased versatility and athleticism and skill of basketball players is a natural evolution of the game. The concept will still be about finding mismatches, creating effective spacing and playing faster before the defense can get set.”
Moving toward that future, the Sixers have a fairly high pick in their pocket for the coming NBA draft and money in their wallet for free agents. If the Sixers have the ability to sign LeBron James, who can play and defend every position on the positionless floor, that’s an absolute no-brainer. If they sign 6-9 Paul George, I’ll take that, too.
Just as interesting is the draft, particularly if the Sixers are in position to select Villanova’s Mikal Bridges with the 10th pick. He needs to fill out, but has the makings of a modern “three and D” NBA player with ball-handling and finishing skills as a bonus.
That would be fine with me, although several mock drafts have the Knicks grabbing the 6-7 Bridges with the ninth pick. They couldn’t get Wright, so maybe that’s the next best thing.
More intriguing from a what-Sam-Hinkie-would-have-done perspective is 6-10 Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr., who might well have been the top pick in the draft if not for suffering a back injury that required surgery last season. As it is, he’s projected to go somewhere between the sixth and ninth picks.
Porter is the athletic, versatile big man of both the present and future, or has a chance to be, depending on his health. I know that former general manager Hinkie always searched out a bargain from the dent-and-ding rack, and Porter would be potentially undervalued wherever he is selected.
The Sixers are looking to compete in a world in which big men can stretch the floor on offense and also step out and defend. They had only half that equation last season, and it still got them pretty far. Now it’s time to find the other pieces.
“That’s the notion of the modern-day player. He can switch and guard smaller players and step out and hit his own shots,” Brown said. “As I said, you don’t have it all, but you’re very close.”